Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Mary Anne Gard

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

 

Wow, is Jesus upset or what? “I come to bring fire.” “Households will be divided.” “Like the changing weather, I have been showing you signs of change, of upheaval and you just will not pay attention!” He is so frustrated with us that He is almost sputtering, almost can’t complete full sentences.

Have you ever been at that place? That place where, you see the signs that someone you love is slipping into dangerous territory and you keep pleading and warning and finally resort to yelling to get their attention. But they don’t listen and fall into the danger you had feared. Then, also as you had feared, you are left with: remorse, guilt, and profound sadness. “Why wouldn’t they listen to me?” “Why didn’t I do more?”

Last weekend I went to the wedding in the sands on the Long Beach peninsula, of a wonderful young man that I helped raise. Many years ago, Katie and I became good, life-long friends with two women in college. Eventually they married and we incorporated their spouses into our various activities. Every Friday night we got together for a serious poker game that usually went on until the wee hours of the morning.

Those poker games and our lives endured great upheaval when, Adam, the first child, now the young man beaming at his bride, arrived. We tried to keep the tradition of Friday night poker, but urgent baby cries interrupted.

Panties needed changing. Bottles needed preparation. The baby needed holding. Gradually, we didn’t drink or smoke so much. By the time number two boy appeared at poker night, we all became domesticated, responsible adult parents. Eventually, four boys arrived in all, and responsible adult activities revolved around their lives and schedules, and not poker pots.

Sadly, one dad died young, and shortly thereafter the other dad ran away. This time great upheaval dragged behind it profound despair. That left us four women to raise the four boys.

The run away dad, to his great credit, eventually returned to the picture, but it was not without years of bitterness, and distrust, and pain before a shaky peace was made.

It was a household torn apart. Father against son. Mother against father. Children against parents. Then finally, at this wedding, after years of stumbling through the family mess, it was clear that what was torn apart was finally made a ragged whole. Sins, if they really were sins, were mostly forgiven by everyone.

Two of the four boys, brothers, stood out in stark contrast to Adam and his brother. These two boys were sons of the father who died young. For some reason, they never fully got traction in this world. They chose to close off their pain and responsibility by drinking.

At this wedding it became glaringly clear to us, who raised and loved them, that they were roaring alcoholics.

Oh yes, we saw signs along the way. Oh yes, we prophesied that they were traveling a dangerous road. Oh yes, we gently suggested they not drink so much. Oh yes, we didn’t serve alcohol at get togethers. Oh yes, they denied all our accusations about their deterioration. But now we could not longer deny nor excuse away the liars, barely standing up before us.

We parental figures gathered and spoke plainly, for the first time together, that there was no getting around it. Those babies, those boys, these men were alcoholics.

In our discussion, each of us told our stories of dealing with alcohol in our lives. After all, we had been just as rowdy at their age, and we turned out fine. But we each hit a wall, a crisis point, a decision place that demanded we pay attention to the signs of havoc in our life course.

One of us would be drug tested and wouldn’t be able to work. Another of us ended up in rehab. Two had children and that ended their alcohol and drug use. Now the children were adults. Somehow they would have their own awakening, just like we did.

Then two of us told stories of alcoholic parents, who never hit their crisis change point and wreaked destruction on their lives and the lives of everyone in their path. No, we had to do something to help move these young men to change. Intervention. That’s what we would do, and that is where we left it.

On the day before the wedding, I walked a part of the Long Beach Lewis & Clark Discovery Trail. They have stations along the way that offer entries from the Exposition journal that describe the flora and fauna of the landscape.

One of the first stations describes the basalt formations seen along the Columbia River. Millions of years ago, huge underwater volcanic eruptions pushed hot lava to the top of the water. The water cooled and shaped it. Opposites of hot and cold formed our land. For millions of years this continuing land and water interaction proceeded until a crisis point. Then land above became too heavy for the land below. One day the land below slipped out from under the land above and covered it.

Even our earth, even in it’s formation, operates on a pendulum of opposites, until a crisis point when chaos and change happens on a grand scale. Then everything has to be rearranged, re-evaluated, and reformed. We are now a species of that reformation and are living out our roles in the grand re-making of the world.

Our lives, in every aspect, are designed for this pattern, from the formation of the world millions of years ago, to the life of a single human being today, there is collapse then change. As Carl Jung writes, “the greatest and most important problems in life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”

Can you really ever change someone until they are ready? As young adults each of us found our own motivation for change, but it wasn’t the motivation our friend’s experienced, nor could it have been because we were different people, from different up-bringings, headed in different directions. It seems that prophetic warnings are only helpful in retrospect. It seems we all have to walk life’s tightrope of choices that keep us forever in tension. Whether we want to fully participate or not, there will be tension and there will be change.

There are so many places in the Gospels where Jesus shows us His human side and today is one of them. He is so frustrated with explaining and prophesying to the disciples that his death is looming. He needs these men to pay attention to him because Jesus feels the fate, the salvation of mankind will soon be removed from his hands and into theirs. When will they understand the signs and warnings as he does? Never.

We each have to experience our own crisis point. We each have to swing wildly around our own center cord that vibrates our tension. We are creatures made of dark stuff and light stuff. Both are needed to bring us to our Via Media, our own true connection with the wonderful, unpredictable Spirit of God.

Often, no mostly, our crisis point means we fail. We fall down so hard that we crack apart everything we’ve known. Our bottom shelves slide over our topsides and a new terrain with a new direction rises to the top.

Richard Rohr tells us that “Most of us need to have the status quo shaken now and then, leaving us off balance and askew, feeling alienated for a while from our usual unquestioned loyalties. In the uncomfortable space, we can finally recognize the much larger kingdom of God.”

He further says, “This pattern of temporary falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith, hope, and love. If one is not prepared to live in temporary chaos and hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves into a Bigger World.”

But you know what, we – you and I don’t get to judge what that Bigger World is for each person. Faith means we trust in God’s direction. We don’t know that the free will a person exercises, that results in a choice we don’t agree with, is against God’s will. Maybe it is perfectly in alignment with God and our judgement is askew.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t head the warnings shouted at us, because we might not find our greatest happiness, for being overcautious. Maybe instead of fearing these falls, and railing against our misfortune when they happen, we should trust God and even be thankful.

I think Alanis Morrisette had it right in her song, “Thank U.” Her lyrics say: Thank you terror. Thank you disillusionment. Thank you frailty. Thank you consequence. Thank you silence. How bout remembering your divinity. How bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out. How bout not equating death with stopping.”

Most certainly we should share prophesies and wisdom we have acquired from our years of failing and thriving. Parts of our path may make a safer, clearer way for others. But, as Jesus illustrates today, despite all our love and warnings and pleading each person has to fall to rise. And not just fall once but many times.

Our job as parents, friends, Christians is to stand by them, and as the BCP guides us in Birthday Prayer #51: “strengthen them when they stand, comfort them when discouraged or sorrowful, raise them up when they fall.” If we ask God to do those things, we better be ready to help out as God’s hands and feet on this earth.

And we should not forget the strength that Jesus offers us in the Eucharist. He knows our journey is difficult. He knows we will ignore our prophets and that the world will yank sure footing out from under us.

But in the remembrance of His life at this table, and in the gift of his body and blood, there is strength and comfort. Here is the promised peace that passes understanding. Here is our center mast that remains planted firm and can withstand all the storms of the world that send us spinning from from despair to hope, from child to elder and even, and most surely, and most blessedly, from the greatest pendulum swing – all of us will experience – from death to life.

When Pigs Fly + Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Mary Anne Gard

Lessons:

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:18-27
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

 

 

When pigs fly……That’s the last phrase in the sentence, “That  will happen… when pigs fly!” It has come to mean, there is almost no chance that “it” will happen at all.

But, when I hear that phrase, “When pigs fly” I think of the Michael Sowa postcard. On it is pictured a forest and fern surrounded lake, shimmering with invitation on a hot summer day.

Jammed under rocks is a old wooden plank that is now used as a rough diving board. On the other end of the diving board, having just launched in full stretch, and fine form, is a big pig with a small grin of knowing delight.

That pig is captured in the delicious pose of full out abandon, unrepentant joy, and expectation of wondrous reveling in glory. (You know what that moment feels like. It is when you are at your best. You are fully trusting. You are giddy with God.)

“When pigs fly” – Anything can happen. Miracles are likely. There are no bothersome laws of physics or governments that bind us. Tables are turned. The first become last and the last become first, and those familiar words are what the Gospel is all about.

So now we find ourselves, with pigs, in the middle of today’s Gospel. The herd of swine have accepted the demons and are running head long down the steep bank. Even though Luke tells us they drowned, what does he really know in this crazy quilt of
a pieced together Gospel. I choose to see those flying pigs frozen in flat out abandon.

Let’s return for a moment to some of the scenes in Luke’s story.

As the commentators tell us, this Gospel appears to be patched together from bits and pieces of folklore, decades of commentary, Hebrew Scripture lenses, and superstition. If you have difficulty understanding or accepting it, you are in educated, good company.

For example, there is great controversy over just where is Gersasenes . After much speculation, the best scholars can come up with is that it might be on the East side of the Sea of Galilee.

Supposedly in that area many pagans lived. Pagan are supposed to have lived there because there were herds of swine. And only pagans would eat swine. However, Jewish commentator Amy Jill Levin, writes that after much archeological digging in that
area, no pigs bones have ever been found.

The quasi-fact that pagans lived in that area is important because the Gospel of Luke is supposed to be the Gospel to the Pagans or at least the Greek pagans. In the last lines of the Gospel, Jesus tells the demonically freed man to “return home and tell all how much God has done for him.”

It is assumed that Jesus was sending him off to evangelize to pagans who had never heard of God or Jesus. Yet this Gospel is written in several styles of Greek: one of which was formal, Greek that would speak to the most classically educated.

And another was business Greek used for commerce and dealing in goods and ideas from all over the then known world. More than likely, the “pagans” already knew of the Hebrew God and of the latest miracle worker in the region, and didn’t need some fanatic nobody to spread old news.

Even if they had never heard of this God or Jesus, It is hard to imagine how the healed man’s testimony would make much difference, or that he would even be allowed to speak in his homeland.

The people who actually witnessed his cure were frightened, not delighted by it. They wanted to get rid of the one who had been possessed by demons, and get rid of the one who performed the exorcism, Jesus. The Geraseses guy scares them with or without demons.

And what is casting demons into swine all about? John Craghan (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 30 no 4 Oct 1968, p 522-536) in his commentary on the Gerasene Demonic, lends his insight that “there is a popular folk tale or story of a Jewish Exorcist in a foreign country that was transferred to Jesus.”

Josephus, a Jewish historian, who lived and studied and wrote soon after the time of Jesus, tells the story of one of his contemporaries who wanted to prove to the crowds that he had to power to drive out demons, so he set up a basin of water a little way off and told the demons to knock it over on the way out of the person he was exorcising. That way, his audience had dramatic, visual proof that the demons had been ejected.

Then there is the Babylonian incantation that directly asks the demon “to make a pig’s flesh, it’s flesh and a pig’s heart it’s heart.” As proof that the demon has left the person and entered the pig, the pig falls over dead. It is speculated that many of these folkloric, possibly true, or absolutely doubtful stories were weaved together into Luke’s Gospel for today.

However, it is likely that somewhere in the country of the Gerasenes a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, when pigs fly event happened and for ages people were tripping all over themselves to spread the story and make sense of it.

You know how this is. Think of an event in childhood. Children are always discovering something new and trying to make meaning of it in their world.

I remember two sisters, neighbors and playmates of my sister and me. They had older brothers who were always creating eye-popping events to make sense of. One day the boys found a bag of cement in their basement and poured it into a downstairs toilet bowl, just to see what would happen.

I can remember their sisters excitedly gathering up my sister and me, running and babbling about a new and foreign substance called cement, then all of us standing over the toilet and speculating how that water hardened. How would we get it out.

Of course, just the proximity to the toilet made all of us have to go immediately. That episode gave a whole new meaning to clogged toilet. We passed on that tale, with our own embellishments, to many friends. You know how it goes.

Despite the disjoined, cut and pasted splicing of this Gospel, we can find our own meaning in it today. It often surprises me that when I am thinking about a Gospel and working on a sermon an event in my life will pop up that underlines the Gospel message for me.

In my work as a hospital chaplain, I pray with and for people in all areas of physical, emotional and spiritual pain. One of the areas we chaplains cover is the mental health unit. Of all the units in the hospital it is the one that chaplains enter with extra prayers under their belts.

It is more like a prison. There is a guard by the door. The “rooms” are cells. No decorations or furniture, only a bed. Chairs are locked in a hall closet that the guard must retrieve for us to sit and visit. It is bleak and sometimes when I am admitted through the guarded door, I think of Dante’s warning about hell, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

In that block of hospital rooms there is a cold feeling and cold temperature and; as part of the mix, the sense that this is an area where the “usual;” like the usual medications, the usual explanation, the usual conversation, the usual prayer doesn’t usually have effect or help.

As we try to assist those trapped in their psychiatric disease to find meaning and healing, we are stretched to find meaning for ourselves being there. It is a place that shreds a do-gooders ego.

I wonder if Jesus felt this way when he first met the Gerasene Demonic? I bet he did. He had to make some meaning of this man’s torment too. He had to ask, “What is your name.” In Biblical language and even today, if you can name something you can have some power over it. If you can name a disease you can order the correct tests, prescribe the right drug, offer the best chance for healing.

Often when a patient or staff member in the mental health unit asks for a chaplain, they are sending out a desperate plea to reach a person down in the tombs of their despair.

On this particular night, while the guard was unlocking the door, I thought of this Gospel and when pigs fly. The nurse pointed me to the room at the end of the hall. I came around the patients door and all of a sudden this tiny, bony, whirlwind of a body was in by arms, hugging me tightly. Something in her realized that something in me was safe. Immediately, something in me received that trust and pain and knew it was safe

For both of us, it was the absolutely correct thing to do. No words had to be spoken, just the spontaneous embrace of another human was enough to slow her whirling brain and bring us eye to eye, soul to soul.

Eventually she backed out of my arms and retreated to a corner of the room. I followed and stood beside her as she told the crazy quilt story of her life. It was filled with a legion of folklore, half-truths, childhood adventures, “what-ifs”, magical thinking, and painful, piercing personal history.

The story came out in jumbled lumps and tears. Eventually she crawled into bed, tired from ridding herself of some demons she carried. Drained from crying out poisons accumulated in her hellish life. She wasn’t cured but she was calmed. She could finally accept the vulnerable state of sleep, that she had fought off for 3 days.

As I walked out of her room, and back down the hall to the locked door, Luke’s Gospel loomed large. Too easily I could connect the dots. Had Jesus had once again sent the demons flying out of the Gerasene demonic and into the pig? That made me the pig! A soft, open eyed, open eared being, unattached to this particular demons history, just going about my business of wandering through the wilderness, when a whim of Jesus interrupted.

That whim, that experience, left me feeling, giddy. Something sacred had transpired between two people and I got to be one of those people. Something holy was riding along with me

A little piece of my heart was transformed, lightened. Jesus had entered that room with and through me. My patient recognized it and I recognized it after her hug.

In my role as pig, it wasn’t demons I took on. If they ever were there, they washed right through me. What stayed was the peace that passes understanding, and the healing of being understood that two humans find when they connect. What stayed was the feeling that I wanted to extend out to my fullest self in an exuberant stretch to tell the glory of God.

I left that hall of cells with a small grin of knowing delight, a pig in full out flight.

Doubting Thomas + Second Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Mary Anne Gard

Lessons:

Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31
Psalm 118:14-29

 

 

Today our Gospel scene opens with the disciples huddled and frozen with fear in the upper room. The doors and windows are barred. It is dark and the air is thick with depression, despair, and the worst of all – doubt.

Despite the years, and travels, and private tutorials, and miracles, they wonder if they knew this Jesus at all. Serious doubt about the man, his message, and his claims to know God’s mind, wrapped cold, clammy tendrils around their souls.

We can see their faith squeezed out of them, dripping off their sandals and running through cracks in the rough floor boards. That bright, loud, triumphant Easter we celebrated last Sunday is nowhere to be found. There isn’t even an echo of an Alleluia.

We don’t get a chance to finish the first sentence of this Gospel, when all of a sudden there is Jesus appearing as the subject, verb, object and the disquieting punctuation mark, “Peace be with you.”

The guys, and I think they are all guys because I’m sure Jesus spent his resurrection morning visiting his mom (wouldn’t you go see your mom first if you just rose from the dead?) – visiting his mom, the Mary’s and other women, who have been crying and praying for 3 days, believing and waiting. I’m sure that is why it was evening before he made it to this sad little room.

Imagine for a moment that you are cowered in fear with them, and Jesus arrives without a warning. What would you do? Jump? Faint? Scream? After that would you run, hide, pull Peter in front of you and say “You deal with it.” Those are all normal reactions for us humans. Within one second we are programed to jump from one emotion to another in order to preserve our life.

Probably the last thought that crosses ours minds is that this is really the man Jesus we knew. The same man we just saw die a grisly death could not be standing before us. Would it be an understatement to say we have major doubt about what is before our eyes. Jesus knows this is the normal, human reaction – to have doubt. It is another one of our built in protective devices.

So, after his startling appearance, the next thing he does is show us his wounds. He shows proof to all of us frightened doubters.

Then, because in our despair, shock and fight or flight reflex turmoil, we didn’t hear him the first time, he declares again. “Peace be with you.”

In that statement, Jesus says, “Despite your doubts, and my doubts (remember the garden of Gesthemane), let our faith in the love and care of God, and God’s ability to carry us all the way through to the end, be rewarded today. I have indeed risen from the dead.”

As we know, Thomas wasn’t a witness to that appearance. When he does show up the disciples bombard him with their enthusiastic, wild claims of seeing Jesus alive again.

Be honest, I bet there isn’t a one of us here who would believe a bunch of our buddies telling us a beloved friend had come back from the dead. Something major like that requires serious proof.

Really, Thomas is not out of line in holding back his belief and enthusiasm. But, we have given poor Thomas the moniker of “Doubting Thomas,” and highlighted him as the poster child of lost faith, and therefore a sinner on the downhill slide to hell.

Why are we so quick point our “holier than thou” fingers at him. Amy B. Hunter (“The Show-me disciple” Christian Century) says in her commentary on this Gospel, “Doubts and uncertainty frighten us. That’s why we reject Thomas – he dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.”

Let me put the Thomas story in a more modern context. Have any of you studied the
Enneagram? The Enneagram is a tool primarily used, by many people, to determine personality type. It is similar to the Myers Briggs, but it can be more nuanced and used to unlock motivations for spiritual, career, and psychological behaviors.
It can also be used to heal our wounds accumulated from childhood.

Ennea means 9. There are 9 types located equidistant around a circle. Each type brings its own gifts and problems. I think Thomas fits in here at a 6. That’s what I am, and so I understand his doubts and actions.

A six is called the “Loyal Skeptic.” Sixes are considered the glue of any organization. They want everyone to get along and work together to keep the organization healthy. They are called loyal because once they believe in a cause or a person, it is almost impossible pry them from that loyalty.

They are called skeptic because they don’t fully trust anyone. We might better call them, the Loyal Doubters. Because they doubt they look at all sides of a person, problem or organization. Sixes want to know the full picture, before they offer loyalty, before they can shed their doubt.

So how might a six react in a situation of peers. Let me give you an example from a workshop that Katie, my wife, and I attended.

The facilitator said to us room full of people, “I’m going to make four statements and I want you to write down the first answer that comes to your mind. Then we will compare.

Katie is an Enneagram 8. Eight’s are very confident. They are usually the corporation CEO’s. So here are the statements and our responses:

1) Hi My name is John.
8 – “Hi John!” (extends hand to shake with John)
6- thinks to self “ok” (hangs back in the crowd watching everyone)

2) I’ m your new boss.
8- “Welcome. I look forward to working with you.”
6 – (Thinks) “What does this mean for my position? Am I going to have to take on more work?
Will he fire me?”

3) We have a long way to go with this company.
8- “I have several ideas I’d like to run by you.”
6- (Thinks) I like the company just way it is. We work well together now. What does a long way to go mean?

4) I’ll set up appointments so that I can meet each one of you personally.
8- “It will be a pleasure to get to know you better.”
6- (Thinks) What does he want me to say? What should I wear to look right.

The eight personality is directly engaging, charging ahead, vocal. The six personality is quiet, evaluating all the options for the good of self and the institution.

Both of these types are valuable and necessary to a well functioning personality, relationship and organization. Along with the other 7 types, they balance the system. What one cannot do, the other can.

I see Thomas functioning as the Loyal Skeptic in our Gospel. He desperately wants to keep his faith in Jesus. He doesn’t want to give up his loyalty to Jesus’s mission nor his group of friends. But, he doesn’t want to be a fool either.

He wants to judge for himself, and for the good of the cause, if these fantastic claims of
resurrection are true. And, I think Jesus knows this. Jesus well knows human frailty and needs. Jesus knows that some of us, maybe most of us, need clear concrete proof, especially for the truly unbelievable.

So Jesus gives us Thomas. Thomas the one who voices the unbelief that all the apostles shared, just one week before in that bolted, depressing room. Thomas is us. Thomas is the desire to believe, but still be doubtful. As commentator, Stan Harstine states:

“Throughout history, Thomas became the exemplar for a variety of human frailties: First, he is the example for those who struggle with the absence of visual evidence.

Second, he is the example for those who express their various doubts.

Third, he is the example for those who think the resurrection impossible.

Finally, Thomas comes to exemplify all the disciples in their doubts.” (“Un-Doubting Thomas: Recognition Scenes in the Ancient World” Stan Harstine, Perspectives in Religious Studies.)

Doubting is normal, necessary and healthy. I think Jesus wants us to doubt, to question our faith, our faith in anything. To grow in personhood and spirit we need to be prepared to shed unhelpful beliefs.

We need to constantly renew ourselves, continuously examine our motives, critically examine the world’s claim to absolute truth. We need to be able to say to Jesus, the Church, and each other, I have serious doubts about you, this rule, this creed.

Doubting Thomas is a hero. He had the guts to voice what all the others were afraid to admit. Thomas demanded that Jesus be personally accountable to him.

Jesus grants Thomas and us, the safety to do that. That was all Thomas needed to renew the loyalty he never fully abandoned. And now, with whole heart and soul he is able to give all of us the hard earned, well examined, now unshakable faith in Jesus with the words: “My Lord and My God.”

But don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Thomas’ word for it. Ask Jesus yourself. Jesus
welcomes, perhaps even demands suspicious seekers and serious skeptics.